Nigeria’s Past & Present Heads of State: Who’s the Best and Worst Head of State?

Alao Abiodun
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We take a look at the journey of Nigeria at 59 from independence to the numerous coups, the transition to democratic rule and the nation’s past leaders with respect to the worst and best presidents it has ever produced.

Dear readers, leave your comments and kindly take time to complete the survey at the bottom right corner of the page on who you think is Nigeria’s worst and best president  going through the list of Nigeria’s Past & Present Heads of State looking at their leadership records and achievements or lack of!.

The Prologue

Significantly this year 2019, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect its president who will rule the nation for another four years (2019-2023) and by October 1st 2019, Nigeria is expected to celebrate “59” years with respect to the nation’s independence anniversary. Interestingly, many heads of state both military and civilian have led, leading and still will lead this great nation. 

The evolution of Nigeria from about 1849 until it attained independence in 1960 is largely a tale of the transformational impact of the British on the people and culture of the area. However, with a moment of deep reflection and thoughts, what has landed us where we are today is our uncritical admiration of yesterday’s men, hence we shall continue to pay a high price for this until we have the uncommon wisdom to look for a messiah.

It should be recalled that in 1953, Chief Anthony Enahoro moved the motion for Nigeria’s independence which was not granted until a follow-up motion S.L. Akintola and Remi Fani-Kayode in 1957 and 1958, respectively. In 1963, Nigeria became a republic, three years after it gained independence.

Just like what a popular maxim opines, to whom much is given, much more is expected, Nigeria has had numerous commanders-in-chief since independence whose individual achievements no matter how controversial they are, are far better than each other. Here’s a long list capturing the various past leaders.

  1. Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa
  2. Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe
  3. Major General Aguiyi Ironsi
  4. General Yakubu Gowon
  5. General Murtala Mohammed
  6. General Olusegun Matthew Obasanjo
  7. Shehu Usman Shagari
  8. Major-General Muhammadu Buhari
  9. General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida
  10. Chief Ernest Adegunle Oladeinde Shonekan
  11. General Sani Abacha
  12. General Abdulsalami Alhaji Abubakar (rtd.)
  13. President Olusegun Obasanjo
  14. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua
  15. President Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan
  16. President Muhammadu Buhari (Current)

“Bloody” and “Bloodless” Coups

Sadly, the clamor for independence which was granted was not utilized properly at its early stage. 6 years after the approval for independence, the nation experienced its first dramatic coup which indeed birthed several other coups. These succession of coups under the leadership of our past leaders has contributed to the woes of the nation. 

On January 15, 1966, the first ever coup was executed and it was a bloody affair. This historical coup d’etat spearheaded by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna, ousted the Prime Minister, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. The first military junta headed by Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi took over power.

The bloody coup claimed the lives of notable individuals like Sir. Ahmadu Bello, the Sarduana of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Nigeria; Chief S.I. Akintola, the Premier of Western Region; Balewa and Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh. This was one of the events that led to the Nigerian Civil War.

Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikwe

He was the first president of Nigeria’s first republic, born into Chukuemeka Azikwe’s family on 16 November 1904. The Onitsha-indigene also known as the Owelle of Onitsha could speak languages of the three major ethnic groups (Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba) fluently due to his upbringing.

He was highly studious as he obtained two Master degrees from different universities after he finished his undergraduate studies in Howard University, Washington DC.

He was a well-known editor who controlled over 12 different daily African-run newspapers. In 1960, he established University of Nigeria, Nsukka and served as Chancellor for University of Lagos from the year 1972 to 1976.

Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi

He became the second of all Nigerian presidents after Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe was overthrown, born on 3rd March, 1924 in Abia state. He joined the army when he was 18 and he served the Nigerian army for 24 years.

The peak of his promotions in the Nigerian army was when he was promoted to the rank of Major General, making him the first indigenous Nigerian to head the entire Nigerian Army.

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Aguiyi Ironsi became the first military head of state on 17th Jan 1966 until 29th July 1966 when a group of northern army rebelled against the government and assassinated him alongside Adekunle Fajuyi in the bloody July counter coup.

General Yakubu Gowon

He became the third President of Nigeria at the age of 32 after Major General Aguiyi Ironsi was overthrown and assassinated. He was born on 19th October 1934. He joined the Nigerian army in 1954 and served for 21 years.

It was during his tenure that genocide claimed the lives of many (mostly Igbo people) by the Hausa and Fulani people. The Nigeria-Biafra war which lasted for 2 years. This war led to the migration of the Igbo back to the east. It was also during his regime that Nigeria joined Organization of Petroleum Exporting countries (OPEC) in 1971.

He was overthrown in a bloodless coup on 29th July 1975 by some group of officers who announced his overthrow.

After his overthrow, the General left the country to get his PhD in political science from University of Warwick in United Kingdom. Seven months later, the Nigerian government declared him wanted, stripped of his rank in absentia and had his pension cut off because he was suspected to have partaken in a coup d’etat that led to the death of General Murtala Mohammed. However, President Sheu Shagari pardoned him but his rank as general was not returned until 1987 by General Ibrahim Babangida.

General Murtala Muhammed

The General was born to Risqua Mohammed on the 8th of November 1938. He obtained his school certificate in 1957 from a government college now called Barewa College. He joined the Nigerian army in 1958.

While in office, he made plans and announced that the federal capital territory would be moved from Lagos to Abuja. He took federal control of the country’s two largest newspapers (Daily times and New Nigerian) and the remaining state-managed newspapers.

Murtala Mohammed was the most respected Head of State Nigeria during his time, He promulgated powerful afrocentric foreign policy.

10 days to his assassination, he created 7 new states (Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Imo, Niger, Ogun and Ondo) making a total of 19 states. Unfortunately for him, he was killed at the age of 37 in his black Mercedes Benz while going to work from his personal house in Ikoyi on an early Friday morning in Lagos. (Dodan barracks).

Members of an abortive coup led by Col. Suka Buka Dimka ambushed his vehicle and got him assassinated on 13th Feb, 1976.

Today, his portrait adorns the 20 naira note and Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos is named in his honor.

General Olusegun Mathew Obasanjo

Olusegun Obasanjo was born on 5th May 1937. He became an orphan at the age of 22. He joined the Nigerian army in 1950 and served for 21 years with several promotions.

After General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated, the Supreme Military Council appointed him as the head of state on the 13th Feb, 1976.

His regime benefited from oil revenues that increased and this he used to improve urban infrastructures on a large scale.

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As the newly appointed head of state, he set a date to end military rule. On 1st October 1979, he resigned as the head of state and also resigned from the army after which he handed over power to the newly elected civilian President Shehu Shagari and then retired to his farm.

Alhaji Shehu Shagari

Shehu Shagari was born on 25th February, 1925 in a Northern Shagari village to his father Aliyu in Sokoto state

He was the first President of Nigeria’s second republic. He got into politics at the age of 26 and he won the election in 1979 under National party of Nigeria with their motto “One Nation One Destiny”.

He also enjoyed the revenue from oil which he used to launch many road networks. He also finished building up the Kaduna refinery just to mention a few. Shehu Shagari was overthrown in a bloodless military coup on 31st December 1983 by General Muhammadu Buhari.

Major General Muhammadu Buhari

General Muhammadu Buhari was born on 17th December 1942 to a Fulani family of Chief Hardo Adamu in Daura, Katsina state. After he overthrew Shehu Shagari in the military coup, his military rule enforced many new laws.

First, he trimmed the number of ministries to 18 after which he decreed War against Indiscipline and Corruption. Civil servants who failed to show up at work were disciplined, Nigerian citizens were forced to form neat queues at bus stops under the eyes of welding soldiers.

Buhari’s regime curbed Nigerians more with respect to behaviors, discipline and etiquette in the society. However, because what goes around comes around, the major general was also overthrown in a bloodless coup led by General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida in 1985.

General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida

General Ibrahim Babangida was born on 17th August 1941 in Minna Niger State to his father Muhammad Babangida.

After he overthrew Major General Muhammadu Buhari, he created 11 new states. 2 states (Katsina and Akwa Ibom) on the 23rd September 1987 and 9 states (Abia, Enugu, Delta, Jigawa, Kebbi, Osun, Kogi, Taraba and Yobe) on the 27th August 1991 making a total of 30 states.

Also, he executed General Murtala Mohammed’s plan to relocate the seat of federal government from Lagos to Abuja.

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He cancelled the June 12 1993 elections as it was unofficially announced that Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola popularly called MKO Abiola won 19 out of the 30 states. He was forced to step down on 26th August 1993 due to pressure from armed forces ruling council.

Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan

He was born on 9th May 1936 in Lagos. He attended C.M.S grammar school in Lagos after which he received a law degree from University of London.

He was a seasoned business man with a wide network. He was appointed by Babangida on 26th August 1993 as an Interim President.

While in office, he released political prisoners. His administration lasted for only 3 months as he was forced to resign by General Sani Abacha. 3 months? That’s quite politically strange.

General Sani Abacha

He was born 20th September 1943 in Kano. He attended Military Training College after which he served in the military from 1963 to 1998. In 1990, he became the first Nigerian soldier to attain the rank of a full general without skipping a single rank. Some records showed him as the most successful coup plotter in the history of Nigerian military.

He overthrew the government of Ernest Shonekan and in 1994, he issued a decree that placed his government above the court jurisdiction. While in office, he arrested Obasanjo for allegedly supporting a secret coup to overthrow him. He also hanged a human right activist by name Ken Saro Wiwa alongside 8 others.

He died 3 months to his 55th birthday on 8th June 1998. He is one of the Nigerian presidents who got intoxicated with power. The Government identified the cause of his death as a sudden heart attack.

General Abdulsalami Abubakar

He was born on 13th June 1942 to his father Abubakar Jibrin in Minna. He studied at Kaduna Technical College. He served in the Nigerian Air force for 3 years and served for 33 years in the Nigerian Army.

He was sworn in on 9th June after Abacha’s sudden death. His administration adopted a new constitution, allowed multiparty elections and lifted ban on political activities.

He released Obasanjo from prison on 15th June 1998 and after assuming office, he promised to hold elections and transfer power to the elected president.

He established Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and he fulfilled his promise by transferring power to the President Elect Olusegun Obasanjo on 29th May 1999. He is one of the few Nigerian presidents who willingly transferred power without any saga.

Abubakar was reluctant to accept the leadership of Nigeria when Abacha passed away, Abubakar was sworn in on the 9th of June, 1998. At this time, Nigeria needed a leader of Abubakar’s status to avoid plunging into civil conflict, as he was a peaceful man who had Nigeria’s best interests at heart.

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Abubakar and his government created a new Nigerian constitution, which would be implemented once a democratically elected leader was in place. Shortly after he was sworn in, Abubakar promised to hold general elections and step down as leader of Nigeria within one year. Critics of military leadership doubted that he would keep this promise, but he did.

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo

Baba Iyabo as he is fondly called is one of the Nigerian presidents who returned to power after his militaristic status as the president. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was appointed as the president of Nigeria on 13th February 1976 but he resigned after three years.

Baba Iyabo came back campaigning after he was released from prison in 1998. He campaigned under the platform of People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

He defeated Olufalae and others and was sworn in on 29th May 1999 which ushered in the fourth republic. His first tenure ended in 2003 and Baba Africa ran for a second term under the same party, PDP which he won by a margin of more than 11 million votes.

President Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime was full of activities. To mention a few, he established the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to tackle human and ecological issues in the Niger Delta region of Southern Nigeria.

Another which will forever be in the heart of Nigerians is the commissioning of MTN Nigeria’s digital microwave transmission in January 2003 as MTN became the first GSM network to make bring down telecommunications in the country. Obasanjo stepped down after the April 2007 general election.

He created the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Universal Basic Education Program, He constituted both ICPC and EFCC with Nuhu Ribadu championing the later. He contributed to the education sector by establishing NECO, therefore breaking the WAEC monopoly. He worked on the creation of the National Open University or the Resuscitation of the National fertiliser company in Kaduna.

Umaru Musa Yar’Adua

The 13th Nigerian president was born on 16th August, 1951 in Katsina into a Fulani family. He attended Ahmadu Bello University where he obtained a BSc. Degree in Education and Chemistry after which he went back to obtain his MSc. Degree in Analytical Chemistry.

He campaigned under the platform of PDP and he won 70% of the votes of the April 2007 election. He was the first of all Nigerian Presidents to declare his assets.

President Umaru battled with Pericarditis, an inflammation of the pericardium (a fibrous sack surrounding the heart). He left Nigeria for Saudi Arabia on 23rd November 2009 to get treatment. His Vice, Goodluck Jonathan was declared the acting president.

He returned on 24th February 2010 but died on 5th May at Aso Rock Presidential Villa.

Umaru Yaradua released some political prisoners in the country to bring peace and unity in the country. He ensured the compensation of the Niger Delta militants in a peace deal brokered by international community to make sure the country is well brought to unity.

Umaru Yaradua made retrieved some of the assets which were mortgaged in the name of privatization program. He took those properties and ensured a transparent program across the country.

Goodluck Ebele Jonathan

The ever lucky President was born on 20th November 1957 in Bayelsa state to a family of canoe makers.

He had a humble beginning as his early school days were with no shoes, no school bags, no generators but lantern. Yet, he finished secondary school and held a doctorate degree from University of Port Harcourt.

He served as a Science Inspector of Education and a lecturer at Rivers state College of Education before he joined Peoples Democratic Party in 1998.

He became the first civilian deputy governor of Bayelsa state on May 29, 1999 after which he was re-elected with the Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha.

Goodluck was a colourless and harmless deputy governor when, in November 2009, he found himself governor as his then-boss Diepriye Alamieyeseigha went down on corruption charges.

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In 2007, Jonathan was the unlikeliest Niger Deltan politician to be featured on the PDP presidential ticket; yet, he emerged as the vice president because then President Olusegun Obasanjo had other ideas.

By February 2010, he became acting president after Nigerians protested and insisted on the National Assembly recognizing him as one. He then became president in May when President Yar’Adua died from the illness that had kept him out of the public space since November 2009.

Goodluck Jonathan, against the PDP’s zoning arrangement, ran for the presidency and won an election in his own right for the first time in his political career.

When President Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner, became ill in 2009, midway through his term, Jonathan inherited the top job and a growing insurgency in the north. But his standing for election in 2011 left many disgruntled, as it tore up an unwritten rule that the presidency should rotate between the Muslim-majority north and Christian-dominated south.

Still, he won the vote on a platform against corruption and thousands of cheering supporters welcomed “Uncle Jona” into office. A long-simmering insurgency in the south calmed down as one of their own took the helm. But Islamist militants in the Muslim north flared up, in part for reasons beyond Jonathan’s control.

Muhammadu Buhari

Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR was born on 17 December 1942) is currently serving as the President of Nigeria, in office since 2015. He is a retired major general in the Nigerian Army and previously served as the nation’s head of state from 31 December 1983 to 27 August 1985, after taking power in a military coup d’état.

He unsuccessfully ran for the office of president of Nigeria in the 2003, 2007, and 2011 general elections. In December 2014, he emerged as the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress for the March 2015 general elections. Buhari won the election, defeating the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. This marked the first time in the history of Nigeria that an incumbent president lost to an opposition candidate in a general election. He was sworn in on 29 May 2015.

In Buhari’s first year in office, Nigeria suffered a decline in commodity prices which triggered an economic recession. To source funds to close shortfall in revenue and fund an expansionary capital budget. In the first year of the administration, Naira, the currency of Nigeria depreciated in the black market leading to a gulf between the official exchange rate and the black-market rate. A resulting shortage in foreign exchange hit various businesses including petroleum marketers.

In May, 2016, the Buhari government announced a rise in the official pump price of petroleum to curtail shortfall in the commodity as a result of foreign exchange shortages.

In 2016, the country’s economy declined by 1.6% and in 2017 per capital economic growth is projected to be negligible. Buhari’s first tenure as head of state coincided with a decline in oil prices similar to his second stint but his administration has not shown dedicated effort to diversify sources of government spending. The 2018 budget signaled an expansionary fiscal policy with funds dedicated to infrastructural projects.


This is a very brief walkthrough of Nigeria’s past & present Heads of States, who is your pick for the Best & Worst of the lot?


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